Harem

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Overview

A seductive and intriguing journey from the humble Persian Jewish quarter to the fascinating world of shahs, soothsayers, eunuchs, and sultanas, Harem follows three generations of strong-willed and cunning women: Rebekah — a poor girl married to the abusive blacksmith, Jacob the fatherless — who emerges from her disastrous match with a mysterious brand between her breasts; Gold Dust, Rebekah's treasured daughter, who enters the opulent and perilous world of the harem and captivates the shah with her singing ...

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Harem: A Novel

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Overview

A seductive and intriguing journey from the humble Persian Jewish quarter to the fascinating world of shahs, soothsayers, eunuchs, and sultanas, Harem follows three generations of strong-willed and cunning women: Rebekah — a poor girl married to the abusive blacksmith, Jacob the fatherless — who emerges from her disastrous match with a mysterious brand between her breasts; Gold Dust, Rebekah's treasured daughter, who enters the opulent and perilous world of the harem and captivates the shah with her singing bones; and Gold Dust's daughter, the revered and feared albino princess Raven, who will one day rule the empire.
Rich in visual imagery, Harem vividly depicts the exotic bazaars and dangerous alleys of the city and palace chambers brimming with conspiracy and betrayal — as well as love and redemption. A skillfully crafted, intricately textured novel, Harem represents the beginning of a remarkable literary career.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Amy Ephron Elegant. Rich with myth, history, politics, fantasy and life intermingled — as if the voice of an Isabel Allende of Persia has emerged.

Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey author of A Woman of Independent Means A richly imagined feminist fable — a feast for the senses.

Robert Hellenga author of The Sixteen Pleasures and Blues Lessons Dora Levy Mossanen's first novel, Harem, is truly astonishing.

Nicholas Christopher author of Franklin Flyer Harem reads like a wondrous cross between Colette and Sir Richard F. Burton. The dark lights and vivid tableaux Ms. Mossanen conjures stay with you long afterward. A very impressive, and adventurous, debut.

Booklist
Mossanen's debut novel is a lush evocation of the mysteriously exotic world of the harem. As three generations of remarkable women struggle to achieve security, respect, and independence in a male-dominated culture, they must use the only means available to spirited females in ancient Persia. Abused by her brutish husband, Rebekah, a breathtakingly beautiful Jewess, dreams of a better life for her beloved daughter, Gold Dust. After tricking her husband into destroying himself, a penniless Rebekah becomes the most sought-after harlot in the thriving Jewish quarter. Securing a coveted position for Gold Dust in the shah's personal harem, she introduces her daughter to the intricacies and the perils of life in the palace. Threatened by her rivals after she becomes the shah's favorite, Gold Dust must protect herself and her strong-willed daughter, the albino princess, Raven.Bewitching and authentically detailed historical fiction chock full of passion, intrigue, and deceit.
Margaret Flanagan
Publishers Weekly
Lush and erotic, this first novel overflows with the magic and sensuality of Arabian Nights tales, 19th-century orientalist paintings and languorous, silken-pantalooned harem beauties. Set in 14th-century Persia, the tale moves easily between the crowded, garbage-strewn alleys of the Jewish quarter and the magnificent palace of the shah. The shah's palace harem is concealed behind a tracery of delicately carved stone panels, where his 365 wives and their many attendant eunuchs lounge, and the queen mother, Bibi Sultana, rules. In the Jewish quarter, the characters are Rebekah, the indomitable heroine; the ancient Zoroastrian, a seeress; the one-eyed rabbi; the merchant Rouh'Allah, who realizes nearly too late he loves Rebekah; and Moses, fated to be gelded and become a lover to the shah. Rebekah is only 10 when she's married to Jacob the Fatherless, a brutal blacksmith, and branded by him with a hot iron bar between her breasts, a mark that will assume nearly supernatural importance. After Jacob commits suicide, Rebekah becomes a prostitute to support her child, Gold Dust. Determined to place her daughter within the harem, she sells her charms to Narcissus, the chief eunuch, even though he carries "his manhood pickled in a jar." Gold Dust becomes the shah's favorite, but provides the sonless ruler with another daughter, Raven, who will eventually be as implacable as her grandmother. The multifaceted story involves an invasion by the Mongol hordes under Teymour the Lame (Tamerlane) and daring escapes by Rebekah and Gold Dust. Shamelessly exotic, it's a delightful read and a grandly romantic escapade. Agent, Loretta Barrett. (Aug.) FYI: The author moved from Israel to Iran at age nine. She now lives in the U.S. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this heavily eroticized novel, Mossanen tells the story of three generations of women - Rebekah, Gold Dust, and Raven - all impossibly beautiful and eminently capable of seducing the most powerful men in all of Persia, including the shah himself. The intricate plot reads like a combination of fairy tale, fantasy, and romance novel. Wicked men and irresistible women, corrupt eunuchs and bitter sultanas all vie for the shah's attention. And yet none of the women can fulfill the shah's deepest wish - to bear a son who will become heir and rule the empire. Though the plot is strangely compelling, the writing tends toward cliche, particularly in the dialog. After a while, the exclamations of "Yes, tonight he would have her" and "You are mine!" become rather tedious and overblown. The unrelenting sexuality of all three women is not empowering but rather unsettling and, at times, downright disturbing. Despite the novel's exotic setting and richly imagined characters, this is an uneven debut. - Amy Strong, South Portland, ME Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Idiotic debut following the erotic adventures of a young Jewish maiden as she's initiated into the secret world of a Persian harem, to emerge as the most powerful woman in the realm. This is the kind of tale where people have names like the Great Black Eunuch and the One-Eyed Rabbi. It all begins with Rebekah. Betrothed to a brutal and ignorant blacksmith (Jacob the Fatherless) while still a child, she is branded between the breasts but promised that she will not be made to have sex before puberty. Jacob breaks his vow in short order, however, and his act pretty well establishes the pattern of their married life. Fortunately, Jacob dies while Rebekah is still young and attractive enough to make a decent living as a whore (she walks about town in sandals that spell out "follow me" in the sand). The only good thing Rebekah got from Jacob was her daughter Gold Dust, a stunning beauty who loves her mother and grows up well schooled in the arts of seduction. Eventually, somehow or other, Gold Dust ends up in the Shah's harem, where she distinguishes herself in her ability to arouse her master even on the worst of days through a combination of looks, technique, and audacity (hint: other girls get brought into the action in novel and quite striking ways). Harems, being full of women who usually have a good deal of time on their hands, can be very bitchy places, but Gold Dust survives the inevitable backbiting to become the Shah's favorite-and to endear herself to others of the group as well. By the close, she'll have given birth to a daughter, the Albino Princess Raven (sic), heiress to the Peacock Throne. Too much fellatio for a standard Harlequin number but, other than that, indistinguishable from the Spicy Romance genre.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743230216
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,446,997
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Dora Levy Mossanen was born in Israel and moved to Iran when she was nine. At the onset of the Islamic revolution, she and her family fled to the United States. The recipient of the San Diego State University Editor's Choice award and the author of Harem, a widely acclaimed novel translated into numerous languages, Dora Levy Mossanen lives in Beverly Hills, California. She can be reached at DoraLevyMossanen.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Rebekah of the violet eyes heard a voice that would haunt her the rest of her life.

"I know she's only ten. I'll be patient."

She hugged her doll and tossed on her pallet. The heat, the flies, and the soothing words of the strange man in the next room interrupted her sleep. Visitors were rare in her home. Her widowed mother left at dawn to wash other people's laundry. In the evenings, Rebekah learned from her mother to bake pistachio cookies and crispy rice, to differentiate between aromatic herbs, and to flatter the man who would one day take care of her.

Rebekah pressed her ear to the makeshift wall.

Her mother's cough shattered the silence.

As if the cough had originated from her own lungs, Rebekah clutched her chest.

"She's the prettiest girl in Persia. I'm saving her for a rich husband."

Suspended between wakefulness and sleep, Rebekah heard the man's melodious persistence, promises of china dolls and lace skirts, chickpea candies and saffron halva, fantasies peculiar to her dreams.

*

Soon after, Rebekah and her mother went to the house of bougainvillea to visit the Ancient Zoroastrian, a clairvoyant who had witnessed the rise and fall of dynasties. She was the only person alive who had seen a time before evil was introduced into the world, a time when the great prophet Ahura Mazda of goodness ruled.

At the end of the alley of pomegranate trees, Rebekah and her mother approached the single room buried under lavish flowers. They parted the branches, searching for the low entrance, and nudged open the door that was never locked. Lingering at the threshold, they waited to be acknowledged.

The old woman sat cross-legged next to a brazier heaped with blazing coals on which seeds of rue crackled and smoked, permeating the air with anticipation. The Zoroastrian's ash-colored skin stretched taut over fragile bones. She had lost all her hair to the ravages of time. Her purple eyelids concealed inquisitive eyes.

Rebekah's mother averted her gaze from the turquoise amulets that hung around the woman's neck, and the red chicken eyes that were set in gold and glared at her from the Zoroastrian's pierced earlobes. "Holy One, I've promised Rebekah's hand in marriage. She's here to ask for your blessing."

The Zoroastrian did not lift her head, open her eyes, or ask any question. She had gazed into her fire and had seen Rebekah and her mother approach. The old one had clutched her bony knees and had chuckled out in glee. She had shifted closer to the flames to better inhale the scent of pearls, silk, rapture, and bliss. Neither the mother nor the child was aware that marvelous miracles were about to occur in Rebekah's life.

"Rebekah's fate is sealed," the Ancient Zoroastrian murmured in a voice that had retained the vigor of youth. "Her future is embellished with crowns and jewels. A life of lust and passion, conspiracy and love. At times, it will be difficult, but never, ever hopeless."

The Ancient Zoroastrian set her veined hand on Rebekah's head. "May Ahura Mazda bless you and may he grant me more years on this earth to revel in the impending miracles."

*

In the synagogue of the One-Eyed Rabbi, Rebekah's mother folded a parchment and handed it to Rebekah. "This is signed proof you're a married woman." She pressed her lips to her daughter's golden curls. "Your husband is rich. You'll live in comfort."

Glancing at the parchment that dangled from her fingers, Rebekah knew she had to accept her fate. She was sad but not scared. Promises of toys and veils and sweets, of kindness and patience and love reverberated in her head. Her mother had married her to the stranger with the sweet voice.

"Your husband will not join you in bed before your first menstrual period," her mother whispered, tears in her voice. "Since I won't be here for long, you must demand that he keep his word."

For the first time Rebekah understood the gravity of her mother's endless coughing and the terrible wheezing in her chest, and why she had found it necessary to discuss the importance of a wife's responsibilities.

Rebekah held her mother's hand as she led her past the stalls in the bazaar toward her husband's house. The ground was thick with chicken feathers, horse manure, and decayed melon rinds. The cries of the vendors of ice water, hookah pipes, and hot tea filled the air. Lopsided poles held white canvases that sheltered vendors from the fierce sunshine. Goods were exhibited at the entrances — strings of figs suspended overhead, roasted nuts and dried beans overflowing canvas sacks, cones of sugar perched on sloping counters. The greengrocer in his skirted robe, belted at the waist with a multicolored shawl, lifted his cone-shaped hat and scratched his shaved head. He wet his henna-tinged forefinger in his mouth, then smeared his saliva on Rebekah's cheeks to scare away the evil eye. From an assortment of persimmons, pomegranates, and yellow melons open to the flies and street dust, he chose a pomegranate, quartered it, and offered her a slice. "For the violet-eyed beauty."

She bit into the bloody fruit, sucked on the seeds, and tasted the familiar tang of powdered nutmeg and ice flowers. She dropped the rest in her pocket to save for her husband.

They reached the end of the Alley of Ezekiel the Cobbler. "This is your home," her mother whispered. "Your husband is thirty-four years old. He'll take care of you."

Her home was the color of mud. From behind an iron fence that protected the house, she saw jasmine bushes, a walnut tree, and a patch of arid land.

"Rebekah," her mother said. "Look! Enough space for you to plant geranium and flowering almond and myrtle like your garden back home."

"Water our garden, Madar. Don't let it dry like this."

At her mother's touch, the gate groaned open. Rebekah stepped into the smell of hot coals. She pressed her nose to her mother's chador to inhale her scent of caramelized sugar and licorice.

Her mother squeezed her to her breasts. "You'll never be alone. I'll always be looking over you," she said, releasing her and walking out the door.

Rebekah ran to the window and peered out through the curtains, past the rusting iron gate. Clutching her doll in one hand and the parchment in another, she watched her mother's wide hips disappear around the turn of the alley. A bird fluttered against the window. The breeze ruffled the leaves of the ancient walnut tree. She turned around to look for the stranger, her husband with the lullaby voice of a storyteller.

Heavy, gold-colored drapes darkened the room. Silver masks, features frozen in laughter, stared down at her from a mantelpiece above a massive kiln in the center. Her stomach churned at the glitter. She averted her gaze from the flames in the hearth, from the poker; mesh glove and thongs suspended from hooks hammered into the cracks in the baked mud walls around the furnace.

"I am Jacob the Fatherless." A fat man with crossed eyes that quivered under heavy brows faced her.

His grating voice shattered her dreams. This was not the man with a voice like music.

His hand that smelled of burning metal grabbed her doll and sent it flying toward the kiln. She rushed to catch the doll. Flames licked the cotton face and devoured the wool dress. Rebekah leaned over the ledge that faced the kiln and thrust her hand into the fire. Jumping back, she stuffed her fingers into her mouth to soothe the burnt flesh. Her doll sizzled into black smoke, gray ash, nothing.

Jacob the Fatherless bowed in mock courtesy and straightened, lifting his stomach with a groan. Spidery legs sprouted from his swollen body, and dark, knotted curls framed his bloated cheeks. "I am a blacksmith — a creator," he said, his crossed eyes struggling for balance. "I melt iron into any shape and alloy I want. All my life I've worked toward a day when everything I melt will turn into gold."

Her mind reeled, trying to contain the scream that choked her. Why had her mother abandoned her to this man?

He spat into the fire, tilted his head, and paused to relish the sizzle. "Your mother negotiated a bargain. She married you to Jacob the Fatherless. A man born without a father."

Her mother's lessons came to her rescue, and she gazed at Jacob with wet, violet eyes, blew on her hand, and fluttered her lashes, pretending fascination.

"Soon I'll become the richest man in the Jewish Quarter. Do you know why? I'm one of the few who endures this fire. The heat has ignited a permanent furnace in my heart. Even in my sleep, flames lash behind my lids." He shot another stream of spittle into the flames, then stared back at her. "I know a secret that will make me eternal like gold — remain forever in one form or another, liquid or solid. Then, like God, I'll never die. Do you understand, Rebekah?"

Rebekah did not.

But that evening when she watched him melt objects in the man-sized furnace in the bedroom, she understood fear. Fear of the kiln, the fire, the madness in his eyes, the heat that turned into beads of sweat on his face while he molded metals into knives, cauldrons, and pots. In the kitchen, he nailed metal sheets on the counter and the wall behind the wood burner, in the dining room over the table and stools, in their bedroom on top of the baked-mud floors.

Past midnight, his eyes raked the house for scraps to feed his voracious flames. He formed ornamental trinkets from the remnants of metal and locked them in a box. He dangled the key in front of her face.

"Who are the trinkets for?" she asked, curiosity overcoming her fear.

He unbuttoned his coat and dropped the key in the secret pocket of his vest, stroking the place where it was buried. "One day you'll know."

When dawn glanced through the window, he nodded toward one of the pallets that flanked the kiln in the bedroom. "You may retire now."

He occupied the other pallet. He tossed about, grumbling for hours, then raised himself and approached her. He lingered overhead, tapped his small, feminine feet against her pallet. Lifted the blanket and stared down at her. She squeezed her eyes shut and pretended to be asleep. Pressing his thumb on the artery at the side of her neck, he counted the pulse of her fear. The acrid odor of liquid iron flowed from his hands and stung her nostrils.

"Open your legs!" he ordered.

"You promised!" she cried, her eyes springing open, her hands struggling to escape.

"No one," he growled, "extracts promises from Jacob the Fatherless."

"You gave your word of honor!"

"Honor! What honor?"

She fought to keep her thighs locked. "Madar!" She screamed, certain the urgency of her pain would summon her mother.

He thrust her thighs open and mounted her.

His howls sounded like a wolf's, and his moans like those of wounded animals. Or were those her cries, her pain, her loss? Where was the man who had asked for her hand, who had promised to be patient?

Blood burned her thighs.

"Never, ever grow," he panted, emptying himself.

*

By twelve, Rebekah's violet eyes had acquired a defiant spark, her curls the sheen of gold, and her lips the blush of wine. The burned skin on her fingers had the pallor and snug fit of an old glove that had, at last, conformed to her hand, and like her, had learned to cope with and survive the world of Jacob.

Her veiled gaze followed him as he shuffled around their home. Even in his absence, she didn't dare search the house for the gold bullion he amassed with the money he earned melting iron. Every evening he sent her into the garden before he made sure nothing was missing, then he changed the hiding places of his wealth. He sat down to dinner, calling her back.

Tonight he fished a large bone from a bowl of hot stew. The heat did not penetrate the thick skin of his fingers. He slammed the bone on a metal plate to empty the marrow, soaked bread and mint in it, and devoured the concoction. He stroked his bloated stomach, stuffed a skewer of ground kebab with mint leaves into his mouth, and belched. A smile of contentment hovered on his face. He complimented her on the freshness of the mint she picked daily, reminding her that without his money that bounty would not have been possible.

She looked forward to the hours she spent cultivating her herbs, not only because her patch of land evoked the home she longed for, but also because from behind the railings she could observe the dancing Gypsies. Rebekah fed the earth with leftover stew and chickpea paste and sprayed the leaves with a mixture of honey and wine to attract the praying mantis. On Fridays, when the first chorus of cymbals, tambourines, and shakers rang about the neighborhood, she walked to the fence, expecting the Gypsies. Colorful, flowing skirts and sleeve ruffles came into view first around the bend of the alley, then plump, feminine figures twirled and spun and swayed in dances Rebekah captured again in her dreams. The vegetation in her garden doubled in size and turned a deep, glossy green, and the dances in her dreams developed and matured in ways she did not understand. What she found out was that something as innocent as a bunch of herbs concealed a secret that helped her subdue Jacob. The taste, the scent, the sizzle of burning mint must summon his lust for gold and pacify him. If he did not chew or smell mint, he seemed to appease himself with her body.

Selecting a sprig, she inhaled the tangy-sweet fragrance. Was it addictive? She touched a leaf to her tongue, tore and chewed on it, tasting its bitter tartness. Why did he prefer it toasted? She held the leaves over the embers on her stove. In her mouth, it was like fire, the acrid taste of her burned fingers. If only she could muster the courage to ask the wandering Gypsies if mint regulated some part of the body. Added to a man's sense of virility? Dampened his cruelty? Made a tight-fisted man sometimes generous?

Even Jacob, at times, strove to be generous. One warm Saturday evening, when nightingales and the scent of jasmine lured Rebekah to her herb garden, Jacob arrived with a rolled parchment.

"The plan for our new house. I'll build it even farther from the garbage pit."

Rebekah realized the importance of owning a home far from the pit, a mound of garbage in the center of the Jewish Quarter around which makeshift stalls displayed fruits, nuts, and spices. She missed the inviting scents and friendly voices; the comforting closeness of people, her mother's avid bargaining as she selected provisions. Didn't her mother know she was not allowed out of the house alone? Why didn't she visit? Did Jacob forbid it?

"Come inside, Rebekah," he called out. "Sit on my lap, while I explain. I'll build our house at the end of the Alley of Lanterns, where a plot of land is so expensive, your little mind won't grasp its value."

"Can I choose the furniture?"

"No," he replied.

"The fabrics for the curtains?"

"What do you know about fabrics?"

"My mother says I've a talent for colors."

"You have none."

"Yes, I do."

His fleshy hands slid under her hips, raised her high in the air, and dropped her to the floor.

"Madar!" Her breath twisted in her lungs.

"She can't hear you," he barked.

Lying flat on her back, his shadow a dark blanket between her and the light of the oil burner, she swore that one day she would destroy Jacob the Fatherless.

*

Dawn after dawn, she splashed cool water on her face, tossed a chador over her head, and walked with Jacob to the Alley of Lanterns to watch him build their house with his own hands. He dug her an estakhr behind the house, paving it with turquoise tiles and filling it with fresh water from a well he had dug.

"Your private estakhr!" he announced, pausing for her appreciation.

Rebekah watched the sun dance on the golden waters and her heart beat with anticipation. Could the Ancient Zoroastrian's prophecy of jewels and love and happiness come true in this house?

Jacob lifted a finger. "You must always swim fully dressed, or I'll flog you to death. Even the stars of heaven must not set eyes on a single toenail of yours. Be chaste and virginal at all times, except in my bed, when you'll transform yourself into a whore. And I'll reward you by treating you like a queen."

The next evening, Jacob arrived home carrying a dress of crushed velvet, a pair of kid boots, and a chador of China silk. He flung them at Rebekah's feet, stepped back, and slapped his thighs with gleeful pride.

Rewarded for the evenings she had surrendered her body to him!

She slipped back into the kitchen to serve his dinner: shank, bone marrow, and mint. Tonight, as every other night, she hid a portion of the meal. Her loneliness was easier to bear if she imagined a time when the stranger with the sweet voice would knock on her door and ask her to collect provisions for the road because they were, at last, leaving for a safer place.
rd

"Where's the mint?" Jacob demanded when Rebekah returned with the steaming stew.

She hurried back to the kitchen. Delicate leaves, slender sprigs, lush bunches of mint had become her friends. Most of his waking hours, while he labored over the kiln, he chewed or smelled mint she picked from her garden. It seemed she had trained him, like a dog, to associate the taste and smell of mint with that of liquid gold. Now the scent of mint made him feel as omnipotent as when he melted gold, so that he didn't seem to have to copulate with her as often to validate himself.

She heard his approaching steps, heard him linger at the door, enter the kitchen. She did not move. There was nowhere to flee. He was behind her, his stomach flattening her against the wood burner, his breath on her neck, his voice calling her a whore-wife, his hands tearing her vest, groping her buttocks, dragging her back into the room, pushing her down on the pile of garments he had purchased.

Not only had he thrust early womanhood upon her, but he felt he had made up for it with a heap of expensive fabrics and sheer veils she despised.

Her gaze roamed the ceiling, forming shadows of fantastical animals and birds and plants, a world where the pain of Jacob's body on top of her and the bitterness of his broken promise to her mother did not matter. A place where the Ancient Zoroastrian's miracles would come true, where she would whirl around as free as the dancing Gypsies.

"Say you're my whore-wife!" Jacob's voice came from afar.

"Never."

"One day you will," he moaned, crushing her into velvet and silk.

Soon, she thought, he will rise and go about his work. For a few hours, she would be left alone in the refuge of her imagination. She tugged the chador of China silk from under her head and studied its shades of orange, red, and yellow. The colors of fire. She threw the veil over her face to inhale the smell of silk and dye and shame.

Jacob's breathing settled. He lifted himself and tossed a coat over his naked body. "Wait right here. I've a surprise for you."

Her palm sliding over her body, Rebekah watched her husband leave. Her hips were slightly fuller, her breasts beginning to ripen, and so was her shame.

"Come out," she heard Jacob calling from the garden.

She buried her face in the rustle of silk. She would not go out. She did not need any more garments or jewelry or perfumes that reeked of disgrace, favors that fed her grief.

Through the silk and velvet that covered her ears, she heard him summon her with the tone reserved for times he believed he was indulging her. Had he mistaken the humiliation on her face for gratitude? When his voice curdled with irritation, she lifted herself.

She leaned naked against the doorway. The breeze carried a biting coolness, and the moon sailed in a cloudless sky. A raucous noise came from behind the house. The stamping of hooves?

Jacob emerged into the garden, pulling a donkey by a rope tied around its neck and muzzle. Her breath caught at the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. The animal's pelt was the color of onyx, with a goose-white band that stretched from its muzzle all the way down to its lush and restless tail. With every jerk of the rope, the donkey turned its neck, thrust its red tongue out, and spat at Jacob. The animal's hard kick sent Jacob flying to the ground. Rebekah pursed her lips to stifle her laughter. She felt an immediate affinity with the stubborn donkey.

Jacob ran after the donkey, pulling the animal around to face her. "This is the only male who may glance at a single strand of your hair."

Rebekah was ecstatic. She had found another who would spit at Jacob. She saw that the animal's penis dangled almost to the ground. To spite all signs of masculinity, she named him Venus.

Copyright © 2002 by Dora Levy Mossanen

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

Rebekah of the violet eyes heard a voice that would haunt her the rest of her life.

"I know she's only ten. I'll be patient."

She hugged her doll and tossed on her pallet. The heat, the flies, and the soothing words of the strange man in the next room interrupted her sleep. Visitors were rare in her home. Her widowed mother left at dawn to wash other people's laundry. In the evenings, Rebekah learned from her mother to bake pistachio cookies and crispy rice, to differentiate between aromatic herbs, and to flatter the man who would one day take care of her.

Rebekah pressed her ear to the makeshift wall.

Her mother's cough shattered the silence.

As if the cough had originated from her own lungs, Rebekah clutched her chest.

"She's the prettiest girl in Persia. I'm saving her for a rich husband."

Suspended between wakefulness and sleep, Rebekah heard the man's melodious persistence, promises of china dolls and lace skirts, chickpea candies and saffron halva, fantasies peculiar to her dreams.

*

Soon after, Rebekah and her mother went to the house of bougainvillea to visit the Ancient Zoroastrian, a clairvoyant who had witnessed the rise and fall of dynasties. She was the only person alive who had seen a time before evil was introduced into the world, a time when the great prophet Ahura Mazda of goodness ruled.

At the end of the alley of pomegranate trees, Rebekah and her mother approached the single room buried under lavish flowers. They parted the branches, searching for the low entrance, and nudged open the door that was never locked. Lingering at the threshold, they waited to be acknowledged.

The old woman sat cross-legged next to a brazier heaped with blazing coals on which seeds of rue crackled and smoked, permeating the air with anticipation. The Zoroastrian's ash-colored skin stretched taut over fragile bones. She had lost all her hair to the ravages of time. Her purple eyelids concealed inquisitive eyes.

Rebekah's mother averted her gaze from the turquoise amulets that hung around the woman's neck, and the red chicken eyes that were set in gold and glared at her from the Zoroastrian's pierced earlobes. "Holy One, I've promised Rebekah's hand in marriage. She's here to ask for your blessing."

The Zoroastrian did not lift her head, open her eyes, or ask any question. She had gazed into her fire and had seen Rebekah and her mother approach. The old one had clutched her bony knees and had chuckled out in glee. She had shifted closer to the flames to better inhale the scent of pearls, silk, rapture, and bliss. Neither the mother nor the child was aware that marvelous miracles were about to occur in Rebekah's life.

"Rebekah's fate is sealed," the Ancient Zoroastrian murmured in a voice that had retained the vigor of youth. "Her future is embellished with crowns and jewels. A life of lust and passion, conspiracy and love. At times, it will be difficult, but never, ever hopeless."

The Ancient Zoroastrian set her veined hand on Rebekah's head. "May Ahura Mazda bless you and may he grant me more years on this earth to revel in the impending miracles."

*

In the synagogue of the One-Eyed Rabbi, Rebekah's mother folded a parchment and handed it to Rebekah. "This is signed proof you're a married woman." She pressed her lips to her daughter's golden curls. "Your husband is rich. You'll live in comfort."

Glancing at the parchment that dangled from her fingers, Rebekah knew she had to accept her fate. She was sad but not scared. Promises of toys and veils and sweets, of kindness and patience and love reverberated in her head. Her mother had married her to the stranger with the sweet voice.

"Your husband will not join you in bed before your first menstrual period," her mother whispered, tears in her voice. "Since I won't be here for long, you must demand that he keep his word."

For the first time Rebekah understood the gravity of her mother's endless coughing and the terrible wheezing in her chest, and why she had found it necessary to discuss the importance of a wife's responsibilities.

Rebekah held her mother's hand as she led her past the stalls in the bazaar toward her husband's house. The ground was thick with chicken feathers, horse manure, and decayed melon rinds. The cries of the vendors of ice water, hookah pipes, and hot tea filled the air. Lopsided poles held white canvases that sheltered vendors from the fierce sunshine. Goods were exhibited at the entrances — strings of figs suspended overhead, roasted nuts and dried beans overflowing canvas sacks, cones of sugar perched on sloping counters. The greengrocer in his skirted robe, belted at the waist with a multicolored shawl, lifted his cone-shaped hat and scratched his shaved head. He wet his henna-tinged forefinger in his mouth, then smeared his saliva on Rebekah's cheeks to scare away the evil eye. From an assortment of persimmons, pomegranates, and yellow melons open to the flies and street dust, he chose a pomegranate, quartered it, and offered her a slice. "For the violet-eyed beauty."

She bit into the bloody fruit, sucked on the seeds, and tasted the familiar tang of powdered nutmeg and ice flowers. She dropped the rest in her pocket to save for her husband.

They reached the end of the Alley of Ezekiel the Cobbler. "This is your home," her mother whispered. "Your husband is thirty-four years old. He'll take care of you."

Her home was the color of mud. From behind an iron fence that protected the house, she saw jasmine bushes, a walnut tree, and a patch of arid land.

"Rebekah," her mother said. "Look! Enough space for you to plant geranium and flowering almond and myrtle like your garden back home."

"Water our garden, Madar. Don't let it dry like this."

At her mother's touch, the gate groaned open. Rebekah stepped into the smell of hot coals. She pressed her nose to her mother's chador to inhale her scent of caramelized sugar and licorice.

Her mother squeezed her to her breasts. "You'll never be alone. I'll always be looking over you," she said, releasing her and walking out the door.

Rebekah ran to the window and peered out through the curtains, past the rusting iron gate. Clutching her doll in one hand and the parchment in another, she watched her mother's wide hips disappear around the turn of the alley. A bird fluttered against the window. The breeze ruffled the leaves of the ancient walnut tree. She turned around to look for the stranger, her husband with the lullaby voice of a storyteller.

Heavy, gold-colored drapes darkened the room. Silver masks, features frozen in laughter, stared down at her from a mantelpiece above a massive kiln in the center. Her stomach churned at the glitter. She averted her gaze from the flames in the hearth, from the poker; mesh glove and thongs suspended from hooks hammered into the cracks in the baked mud walls around the furnace.

"I am Jacob the Fatherless." A fat man with crossed eyes that quivered under heavy brows faced her.

His grating voice shattered her dreams. This was not the man with a voice like music.

His hand that smelled of burning metal grabbed her doll and sent it flying toward the kiln. She rushed to catch the doll. Flames licked the cotton face and devoured the wool dress. Rebekah leaned over the ledge that faced the kiln and thrust her hand into the fire. Jumping back, she stuffed her fingers into her mouth to soothe the burnt flesh. Her doll sizzled into black smoke, gray ash, nothing.

Jacob the Fatherless bowed in mock courtesy and straightened, lifting his stomach with a groan. Spidery legs sprouted from his swollen body, and dark, knotted curls framed his bloated cheeks. "I am a blacksmith — a creator," he said, his crossed eyes struggling for balance. "I melt iron into any shape and alloy I want. All my life I've worked toward a day when everything I melt will turn into gold."

Her mind reeled, trying to contain the scream that choked her. Why had her mother abandoned her to this man?

He spat into the fire, tilted his head, and paused to relish the sizzle. "Your mother negotiated a bargain. She married you to Jacob the Fatherless. A man born without a father."

Her mother's lessons came to her rescue, and she gazed at Jacob with wet, violet eyes, blew on her hand, and fluttered her lashes, pretending fascination.

"Soon I'll become the richest man in the Jewish Quarter. Do you know why? I'm one of the few who endures this fire. The heat has ignited a permanent furnace in my heart. Even in my sleep, flames lash behind my lids." He shot another stream of spittle into the flames, then stared back at her. "I know a secret that will make me eternal like gold — remain forever in one form or another, liquid or solid. Then, like God, I'll never die. Do you understand, Rebekah?"

Rebekah did not.

But that evening when she watched him melt objects in the man-sized furnace in the bedroom, she understood fear. Fear of the kiln, the fire, the madness in his eyes, the heat that turned into beads of sweat on his face while he molded metals into knives, cauldrons, and pots. In the kitchen, he nailed metal sheets on the counter and the wall behind the wood burner, in the dining room over the table and stools, in their bedroom on top of the baked-mud floors.

Past midnight, his eyes raked the house for scraps to feed his voracious flames. He formed ornamental trinkets from the remnants of metal and locked them in a box. He dangled the key in front of her face.

"Who are the trinkets for?" she asked, curiosity overcoming her fear.

He unbuttoned his coat and dropped the key in the secret pocket of his vest, stroking the place where it was buried. "One day you'll know."

When dawn glanced through the window, he nodded toward one of the pallets that flanked the kiln in the bedroom. "You may retire now."

He occupied the other pallet. He tossed about, grumbling for hours, then raised himself and approached her. He lingered overhead, tapped his small, feminine feet against her pallet. Lifted the blanket and stared down at her. She squeezed her eyes shut and pretended to be asleep. Pressing his thumb on the artery at the side of her neck, he counted the pulse of her fear. The acrid odor of liquid iron flowed from his hands and stung her nostrils.

"Open your legs!" he ordered.

"You promised!" she cried, her eyes springing open, her hands struggling to escape.

"No one," he growled, "extracts promises from Jacob the Fatherless."

"You gave your word of honor!"

"Honor! What honor?"

She fought to keep her thighs locked. "Madar!" She screamed, certain the urgency of her pain would summon her mother.

He thrust her thighs open and mounted her.

His howls sounded like a wolf's, and his moans like those of wounded animals. Or were those her cries, her pain, her loss? Where was the man who had asked for her hand, who had promised to be patient?

Blood burned her thighs.

"Never, ever grow," he panted, emptying himself.

*

By twelve, Rebekah's violet eyes had acquired a defiant spark, her curls the sheen of gold, and her lips the blush of wine. The burned skin on her fingers had the pallor and snug fit of an old glove that had, at last, conformed to her hand, and like her, had learned to cope with and survive the world of Jacob.

Her veiled gaze followed him as he shuffled around their home. Even in his absence, she didn't dare search the house for the gold bullion he amassed with the money he earned melting iron. Every evening he sent her into the garden before he made sure nothing was missing, then he changed the hiding places of his wealth. He sat down to dinner, calling her back.

Tonight he fished a large bone from a bowl of hot stew. The heat did not penetrate the thick skin of his fingers. He slammed the bone on a metal plate to empty the marrow, soaked bread and mint in it, and devoured the concoction. He stroked his bloated stomach, stuffed a skewer of ground kebab with mint leaves into his mouth, and belched. A smile of contentment hovered on his face. He complimented her on the freshness of the mint she picked daily, reminding her that without his money that bounty would not have been possible.

She looked forward to the hours she spent cultivating her herbs, not only because her patch of land evoked the home she longed for, but also because from behind the railings she could observe the dancing Gypsies. Rebekah fed the earth with leftover stew and chickpea paste and sprayed the leaves with a mixture of honey and wine to attract the praying mantis. On Fridays, when the first chorus of cymbals, tambourines, and shakers rang about the neighborhood, she walked to the fence, expecting the Gypsies. Colorful, flowing skirts and sleeve ruffles came into view first around the bend of the alley, then plump, feminine figures twirled and spun and swayed in dances Rebekah captured again in her dreams. The vegetation in her garden doubled in size and turned a deep, glossy green, and the dances in her dreams developed and matured in ways she did not understand. What she found out was that something as innocent as a bunch of herbs concealed a secret that helped her subdue Jacob. The taste, the scent, the sizzle of burning mint must summon his lust for gold and pacify him. If he did not chew or smell mint, he seemed to appease himself with her body.

Selecting a sprig, she inhaled the tangy-sweet fragrance. Was it addictive? She touched a leaf to her tongue, tore and chewed on it, tasting its bitter tartness. Why did he prefer it toasted? She held the leaves over the embers on her stove. In her mouth, it was like fire, the acrid taste of her burned fingers. If only she could muster the courage to ask the wandering Gypsies if mint regulated some part of the body. Added to a man's sense of virility? Dampened his cruelty? Made a tight-fisted man sometimes generous?

Even Jacob, at times, strove to be generous. One warm Saturday evening, when nightingales and the scent of jasmine lured Rebekah to her herb garden, Jacob arrived with a rolled parchment.

"The plan for our new house. I'll build it even farther from the garbage pit."

Rebekah realized the importance of owning a home far from the pit, a mound of garbage in the center of the Jewish Quarter around which makeshift stalls displayed fruits, nuts, and spices. She missed the inviting scents and friendly voices; the comforting closeness of people, her mother's avid bargaining as she selected provisions. Didn't her mother know she was not allowed out of the house alone? Why didn't she visit? Did Jacob forbid it?

"Come inside, Rebekah," he called out. "Sit on my lap, while I explain. I'll build our house at the end of the Alley of Lanterns, where a plot of land is so expensive, your little mind won't grasp its value."

"Can I choose the furniture?"

"No," he replied.

"The fabrics for the curtains?"

"What do you know about fabrics?"

"My mother says I've a talent for colors."

"You have none."

"Yes, I do."

His fleshy hands slid under her hips, raised her high in the air, and dropped her to the floor.

"Madar!" Her breath twisted in her lungs.

"She can't hear you," he barked.

Lying flat on her back, his shadow a dark blanket between her and the light of the oil burner, she swore that one day she would destroy Jacob the Fatherless.

*

Dawn after dawn, she splashed cool water on her face, tossed a chador over her head, and walked with Jacob to the Alley of Lanterns to watch him build their house with his own hands. He dug her an estakhr behind the house, paving it with turquoise tiles and filling it with fresh water from a well he had dug.

"Your private estakhr!" he announced, pausing for her appreciation.

Rebekah watched the sun dance on the golden waters and her heart beat with anticipation. Could the Ancient Zoroastrian's prophecy of jewels and love and happiness come true in this house?

Jacob lifted a finger. "You must always swim fully dressed, or I'll flog you to death. Even the stars of heaven must not set eyes on a single toenail of yours. Be chaste and virginal at all times, except in my bed, when you'll transform yourself into a whore. And I'll reward you by treating you like a queen."

The next evening, Jacob arrived home carrying a dress of crushed velvet, a pair of kid boots, and a chador of China silk. He flung them at Rebekah's feet, stepped back, and slapped his thighs with gleeful pride.

Rewarded for the evenings she had surrendered her body to him!

She slipped back into the kitchen to serve his dinner: shank, bone marrow, and mint. Tonight, as every other night, she hid a portion of the meal. Her loneliness was easier to bear if she imagined a time when the stranger with the sweet voice would knock on her door and ask her to collect provisions for the road because they were, at last, leaving for a safer place.

"Where's the mint?" Jacob demanded when Rebekah returned with the steaming stew.

She hurried back to the kitchen. Delicate leaves, slender sprigs, lush bunches of mint had become her friends. Most of his waking hours, while he labored over the kiln, he chewed or smelled mint she picked from her garden. It seemed she had trained him, like a dog, to associate the taste and smell of mint with that of liquid gold. Now the scent of mint made him feel as omnipotent as when he melted gold, so that he didn't seem to have to copulate with her as often to validate himself.

She heard his approaching steps, heard him linger at the door, enter the kitchen. She did not move. There was nowhere to flee. He was behind her, his stomach flattening her against the wood burner, his breath on her neck, his voice calling her a whore-wife, his hands tearing her vest, groping her buttocks, dragging her back into the room, pushing her down on the pile of garments he had purchased.

Not only had he thrust early womanhood upon her, but he felt he had made up for it with a heap of expensive fabrics and sheer veils she despised.

Her gaze roamed the ceiling, forming shadows of fantastical animals and birds and plants, a world where the pain of Jacob's body on top of her and the bitterness of his broken promise to her mother did not matter. A place where the Ancient Zoroastrian's miracles would come true, where she would whirl around as free as the dancing Gypsies.

"Say you're my whore-wife!" Jacob's voice came from afar.

"Never."

"One day you will," he moaned, crushing her into velvet and silk.

Soon, she thought, he will rise and go about his work. For a few hours, she would be left alone in the refuge of her imagination. She tugged the chador of China silk from under her head and studied its shades of orange, red, and yellow. The colors of fire. She threw the veil over her face to inhale the smell of silk and dye and shame.

Jacob's breathing settled. He lifted himself and tossed a coat over his naked body. "Wait right here. I've a surprise for you."

Her palm sliding over her body, Rebekah watched her husband leave. Her hips were slightly fuller, her breasts beginning to ripen, and so was her shame.

"Come out," she heard Jacob calling from the garden.

She buried her face in the rustle of silk. She would not go out. She did not need any more garments or jewelry or perfumes that reeked of disgrace, favors that fed her grief.

Through the silk and velvet that covered her ears, she heard him summon her with the tone reserved for times he believed he was indulging her. Had he mistaken the humiliation on her face for gratitude? When his voice curdled with irritation, she lifted herself.

She leaned naked against the doorway. The breeze carried a biting coolness, and the moon sailed in a cloudless sky. A raucous noise came from behind the house. The stamping of hooves?

Jacob emerged into the garden, pulling a donkey by a rope tied around its neck and muzzle. Her breath caught at the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. The animal's pelt was the color of onyx, with a goose-white band that stretched from its muzzle all the way down to its lush and restless tail. With every jerk of the rope, the donkey turned its neck, thrust its red tongue out, and spat at Jacob. The animal's hard kick sent Jacob flying to the ground. Rebekah pursed her lips to stifle her laughter. She felt an immediate affinity with the stubborn donkey.

Jacob ran after the donkey, pulling the animal around to face her. "This is the only male who may glance at a single strand of your hair."

Rebekah was ecstatic. She had found another who would spit at Jacob. She saw that the animal's penis dangled almost to the ground. To spite all signs of masculinity, she named him Venus.

Copyright © 2002 by Dora Levy Mossanen

Read More Show Less

Introduction

A SCRIBNER PAPERBACK FICTION

READING GROUP GUIDE

HAREM

Discussion Points

  1. Set in the Jewish Quarter of Ancient Persia, Harem follows the lives of three generations of courageous and cunning women — Rebekah; her daughter, Gold Dust; and her granddaughter, Raven — who are determined to realize their dreams despite the limitations of their forbidding society. How do those limitations change over the course of the novel? How do their dreams differ? How successful is each woman in achieving her dreams?
  2. At the opening of the novel, Rebekah of the violet eyes heard a voice that would haunt her the rest of her life. As she hugs her doll, tossing on her pallet suspended between wakefulness and sleep, ten-year-old Rebekah is captivated by the stranger with a voice like music, who she is convinced will be chosen as her future husband. In a sense it can be said that Rebekah falls in love at first sound. What does the man's voice represent for her? Why do you think Rebekah's dying mother believed she was choosing a better future for her daughter by choosing Jacob the Fatherless? Do you think the stranger continues to inhabit Rebekah's fantasies more because of the brutality of her marriage, or because Rebekah and Rouh'Allah the Spirit of God are fated to be together?
  3. Alarmed by the growing madness she can see in her husband's eyes, Rebekah yearns to escape. Yet when Jacob slyly tells her she can leave but reveals that her mother is dead, she elects to stay. Why? "You've nowhere to go. I'm your only hope," he taunts her. Is that true? You are a weakling, afraid of freedom, Rebekah,she taunts herself. Is that true? What choices does she realistically have? Why, when she becomes pregnant, does Rebekah fear having a son? Why do you think she sees giving birth to a girl as a sign that God has forgiven her? What was your reaction to Rebekah's deliberate goading of her increasingly delusional husband into flinging himself into his flaming kiln in an attempt to make himself immortal? Was there any other way to free herself and Gold Dust from Jacob's violence?
  4. With no family and no money and a child to care for, Rebekah eventually sells her favors to carefully selected, mostly wealthy, men. When her daughter, Gold Dust, hears the names her mother is called and asks what a whore is, Rebekah replies: "A whore is a woman who has the honor to sacrifice her body and soul for the comfort of her child." Do you agree or disagree with Rebekah that there can be honor in becoming a "whore"? Why? Does she believe she had other choices? Do you think she did?
  5. Even though Gold Dust has announced her own intention to marry the acrobat Soleiman the Agile, Rebekah still insists on choosing a husband for her. Discuss the irony of Rebekah following the path that made her feel so betrayed by her own mother. Rebekah is sure she can choose more wisely than her mother did. Instead of selecting the wealthiest suitor, she will search out the most educated bachelor in the Jewish Quarter. Wisdom, she had decided, granted a man confidence and ease in his relationships with women. Illiterate men like Jacob made up for their ignorance by stifling a woman's soul. Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
  6. When Rebekah visits the merchant Rouh'Allah the Spirit of God in an attempt to arrange a match between her daughter and his son, she discovers that the father is the man with the voice that haunts her. Discuss the irony of Rouh'Allah turning down Rebekah's daughter for his son the way her mother had turned him down as a husband for Rebekah.
  7. Unable to secure a suitable husband for Gold Dust, Rebekah turns to the world of the harem as the perfect solution for her daughter's life. How do you think Rebekah is influenced by her own view of marriage, which she has described to Gold Dust as "an alliance to enslave and shame women"? How is her choice for her daughter influenced by the knowledge that if Gold Dust is admitted to the harem, she, Rebekah, will no longer have to earn her living as a whore? Did the world of the harem in fact offer Persian women of that time advantages they could not gain elsewhere? Did the exotic, conspiratorial, mysterious world of the harem portrayed by the author seem enticing to you? Why or why not?
  8. How does Gold Dust's life in the harem change once she becomes the chosen one? How does she learn to cope with stares that stab like daggers and words that poison like hemlock? When her mother visits, she shares with her daughter the secrets of men, the hidden weaknesses of kings, and the power of the heart over the body. "Seek power but don't let it cloud your humanity," her mother cautions. "Men are fickle; they come and go. You and only you must remain the ruler of your heart; that's the secret to survival," Rebekah reminds her. And she adds: "In the end, life is judged by highlights not by days." What does she mean? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  9. Gold Dust gets rigorous training in palace etiquette, dance, poetry, music, and Islamic culture, but it is palace gossip and lessons in the art of lovemaking from the eunuch Hazel Boy that help to set her sights on a new ambition: to become queen. How does Gold Dust plan to advance her power in the court? When she gives birth to the child who she is convinced will be heir to the throne and it turns out to be not the Shah's first son, but an albino daughter, how does Gold Dust manage to get the king to accept this odd-looking but very beautiful girl child? And how does their extraordinary daughter, against all reason named Raven, capture her father's heart?
  10. While Raven's teaching the Shah to see women as equals may strike many modern readers as admirable (told by her father when she is twelve that the law doesn't allow a woman to rule, Raven's hard-to-refute logic says simply: "You are the king. Change the law."), her lack of compassion alarms both of her parents. "Is it true that you planned the execution of two men and wanted their hands cut off?" Gold Dust confronts her. When Raven gleefully responds, "Next time I'll be less lenient," Gold Dust prays that the late shah's madness has not flared with even more intensity in her daughter. What do you think of Raven? How do you think the author intends the reader to view her?
  11. Suffocating in the Shah's dark moods and melancholy lovemaking, afraid of her own daughter, Gold Dust yearns for Soleiman the Agile, the acrobat whose love-stricken eyes have thrived in the fertile land of her imagination. "How can you toss away your dream?" Rebekah chastises her. But Gold Dust will not be deterred. "Even if they hang me from the tower, I must meet Soleiman." Even though she agrees to help Gold Dust, Rebekah secretly plans to thwart the meeting. Rebekah clearly loves her daughter and wants her to be happy. Yet still she is willing to sabotage her desires. Do you know women like Rebekah — who would manipulate their grown children's lives if they had the opportunity to prevent what they view as a major mistake? Do you think they have the right? Only when she fears for her daughter's survival does Rebekah show a willingness to help Gold Dust as she wants to be helped. How do you think the author expects us to react to the clash between mother and daughter?
  12. Under threat of invasion by the legendary Tartar warrior Teymour the Lame, the Shah readies to lead his men into battle. Intoxicated with his new goal, his body vibrating with new ardor, the king makes love to Gold Dust. As she yields to their love-tussle, Soleiman the Agile lodges deeper and deeper into her soul. And as the shah lies in Gold Dust's arms, it is Raven, who occupies his dreams. But it is not until he is back from war that the undercurrents of incest in the bond between father and daughter come to fruition in the cries of a king rendered helpless by the enormity of his desire. Given the strength of the taboo against incest, did reading about their passion make you uncomfortable? What are we to make of their strange, forbidden relationship?
  13. When the Shah learns of Gold Dust's infidelity, he orders her executed. Hazel Boy tries fussily to convince the Shah that the accusations are lies. He struggles to understand such violent jealousy. How could the Shah end Gold Dust's life simply because she has fallen in love? Had he not shared his king with hundreds of sultanas and rejoiced at his pleasure? Is jealousy different for a half-man? the eunuch wonders. Did true men react differently? What about women? How did Gold Dust and the other sultanas feel about sharing the Shah? And Honey? She was like him, half-woman, half-man, desiring other women, weeping when a lover was indifferent, but having the generosity to forgive. What do you think determines how possessive a person is in a relationship? Is sexual jealousy a necessary component of passion? Do people who are generous in other areas of life take a more generous and forgiving approach to infidelity than those who are less generous?
  14. John Rechy, author of the bestselling classic City of Night, praises Harem as an "epic novel that teems with sharply drawn characters and haunting scenes." Novelist Ann Rowe Seaman calls it "an intensely visual book, written in scenes like an exotic movie." And novelist Maureen Connell finds "the despair, danger, and erotic life of the Seraglio stunningly portrayed." Do you agree or disagree with these assessments? Why?
  15. How much did you know about the harem before reading this book? As she researched this novel, author Dora Levy Mossanen found herself powerfully drawn into the intimate and secret dealings of the sultanas. "I studied the psyche of women whose lives revolved around the one night the Shah might invite them into his bed and about their sexual relationships with eunuchs who were supposed to be their guardians. I found myself lost in these women's tormented worlds of smoke and opium and poisons. I studied different forms of castration and how the process physically and psychologically scarred the eunuchs." Does the author succeed in communicating her own fascination with this world? Does her novel make you want to learn more about life in the harem?

Dora Levy Mossanen was born in Israel and moved to Iran when she was nine. At the onset of the Islamic revolution, she and her family fled to the United States. The recipient of the San Diego State University Editor's Choice award and the author of Harem, a widely acclaimed novel translated into numerous languages, Dora Levy Mossanen lives in Beverly Hills, California. She can be reached at www.doralevymossanen.com.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

A SCRIBNER PAPERBACK FICTION

READING GROUP GUIDE

HAREM

Discussion Points

  1. Set in the Jewish Quarter of Ancient Persia, Harem follows the lives of three generations of courageous and cunning women — Rebekah; her daughter, Gold Dust; and her granddaughter, Raven — who are determined to realize their dreams despite the limitations of their forbidding society. How do those limitations change over the course of the novel? How do their dreams differ? How successful is each woman in achieving her dreams?
  2. At the opening of the novel, Rebekah of the violet eyes heard a voice that would haunt her the rest of her life. As she hugs her doll, tossing on her pallet suspended between wakefulness and sleep, ten-year-old Rebekah is captivated by the stranger with a voice like music, who she is convinced will be chosen as her future husband. In a sense it can be said that Rebekah falls in love at first sound. What does the man's voice represent for her? Why do you think Rebekah's dying mother believed she was choosing a better future for her daughter by choosing Jacob the Fatherless? Do you think the stranger continues to inhabit Rebekah's fantasies more because of the brutality of her marriage, or because Rebekah and Rouh'Allah the Spirit of God are fated to be together?
  3. Alarmed by the growing madness she can see in her husband's eyes, Rebekah yearns to escape. Yet when Jacob slyly tells her she can leave but reveals that her mother is dead, she elects to stay. Why? "You've nowhere to go. I'm your only hope," he taunts her. Is that true? You are a weakling, afraid of freedom, Rebekah, she taunts herself. Is that true? What choices does she realistically have? Why, when she becomes pregnant, does Rebekah fear having a son? Why do you think she sees giving birth to a girl as a sign that God has forgiven her? What was your reaction to Rebekah's deliberate goading of her increasingly delusional husband into flinging himself into his flaming kiln in an attempt to make himself immortal? Was there any other way to free herself and Gold Dust from Jacob's violence?
  4. With no family and no money and a child to care for, Rebekah eventually sells her favors to carefully selected, mostly wealthy, men. When her daughter, Gold Dust, hears the names her mother is called and asks what a whore is, Rebekah replies: "A whore is a woman who has the honor to sacrifice her body and soul for the comfort of her child." Do you agree or disagree with Rebekah that there can be honor in becoming a "whore"? Why? Does she believe she had other choices? Do you think she did?
  5. Even though Gold Dust has announced her own intention to marry the acrobat Soleiman the Agile, Rebekah still insists on choosing a husband for her. Discuss the irony of Rebekah following the path that made her feel so betrayed by her own mother. Rebekah is sure she can choose more wisely than her mother did. Instead of selecting the wealthiest suitor, she will search out the most educated bachelor in the Jewish Quarter. Wisdom, she had decided, granted a man confidence and ease in his relationships with women. Illiterate men like Jacob made up for their ignorance by stifling a woman's soul. Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
  6. When Rebekah visits the merchant Rouh'Allah the Spirit of God in an attempt to arrange a match between her daughter and his son, she discovers that the father is the man with the voice that haunts her. Discuss the irony of Rouh'Allah turning down Rebekah's daughter for his son the way her mother had turned him down as a husband for Rebekah.
  7. Unable to secure a suitable husband for Gold Dust, Rebekah turns to the world of the harem as the perfect solution for her daughter's life. How do you think Rebekah is influenced by her own view of marriage, which she has described to Gold Dust as "an alliance to enslave and shame women"? How is her choice for her daughter influenced by the knowledge that if Gold Dust is admitted to the harem, she, Rebekah, will no longer have to earn her living as a whore? Did the world of the harem in fact offer Persian women of that time advantages they could not gain elsewhere? Did the exotic, conspiratorial, mysterious world of the harem portrayed by the author seem enticing to you? Why or why not?
  8. How does Gold Dust's life in the harem change once she becomes the chosen one? How does she learn to cope with stares that stab like daggers and words that poison like hemlock? When her mother visits, she shares with her daughter the secrets of men, the hidden weaknesses of kings, and the power of the heart over the body. "Seek power but don't let it cloud your humanity," her mother cautions. "Men are fickle; they come and go. You and only you must remain the ruler of your heart; that's the secret to survival," Rebekah reminds her. And she adds: "In the end, life is judged by highlights not by days." What does she mean? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  9. Gold Dust gets rigorous training in palace etiquette, dance, poetry, music, and Islamic culture, but it is palace gossip and lessons in the art of lovemaking from the eunuch Hazel Boy that help to set her sights on a new ambition: to become queen. How does Gold Dust plan to advance her power in the court? When she gives birth to the child who she is convinced will be heir to the throne and it turns out to be not the Shah's first son, but an albino daughter, how does Gold Dust manage to get the king to accept this odd-looking but very beautiful girl child? And how does their extraordinary daughter, against all reason named Raven, capture her father's heart?
  10. While Raven's teaching the Shah to see women as equals may strike many modern readers as admirable (told by her father when she is twelve that the law doesn't allow a woman to rule, Raven's hard-to-refute logic says simply: "You are the king. Change the law."), her lack of compassion alarms both of her parents. "Is it true that you planned the execution of two men and wanted their hands cut off?" Gold Dust confronts her. When Raven gleefully responds, "Next time I'll be less lenient," Gold Dust prays that the late shah's madness has not flared with even more intensity in her daughter. What do you think of Raven? How do you think the author intends the reader to view her?
  11. Suffocating in the Shah's dark moods and melancholy lovemaking, afraid of her own daughter, Gold Dust yearns for Soleiman the Agile, the acrobat whose love-stricken eyes have thrived in the fertile land of her imagination. "How can you toss away your dream?" Rebekah chastises her. But Gold Dust will not be deterred. "Even if they hang me from the tower, I must meet Soleiman." Even though she agrees to help Gold Dust, Rebekah secretly plans to thwart the meeting. Rebekah clearly loves her daughter and wants her to be happy. Yet still she is willing to sabotage her desires. Do you know women like Rebekah — who would manipulate their grown children's lives if they had the opportunity to prevent what they view as a major mistake? Do you think they have the right? Only when she fears for her daughter's survival does Rebekah show a willingness to help Gold Dust as she wants to be helped. How do you think the author expects us to react to the clash between mother and daughter?
  12. Under threat of invasion by the legendary Tartar warrior Teymour the Lame, the Shah readies to lead his men into battle. Intoxicated with his new goal, his body vibrating with new ardor, the king makes love to Gold Dust. As she yields to their love-tussle, Soleiman the Agile lodges deeper and deeper into her soul. And as the shah lies in Gold Dust's arms, it is Raven, who occupies his dreams. But it is not until he is back from war that the undercurrents of incest in the bond between father and daughter come to fruition in the cries of a king rendered helpless by the enormity of his desire. Given the strength of the taboo against incest, did reading about their passion make you uncomfortable? What are we to make of their strange, forbidden relationship?
  13. When the Shah learns of Gold Dust's infidelity, he orders her executed. Hazel Boy tries fussily to convince the Shah that the accusations are lies. He struggles to understand such violent jealousy. How could the Shah end Gold Dust's life simply because she has fallen in love? Had he not shared his king with hundreds of sultanas and rejoiced at his pleasure? Is jealousy different for a half-man? the eunuch wonders. Did true men react differently? What about women? How did Gold Dust and the other sultanas feel about sharing the Shah? And Honey? She was like him, half-woman, half-man, desiring other women, weeping when a lover was indifferent, but having the generosity to forgive. What do you think determines how possessive a person is in a relationship? Is sexual jealousy a necessary component of passion? Do people who are generous in other areas of life take a more generous and forgiving approach to infidelity than those who are less generous?
  14. John Rechy, author of the bestselling classic City of Night, praises Harem as an "epic novel that teems with sharply drawn characters and haunting scenes." Novelist Ann Rowe Seaman calls it "an intensely visual book, written in scenes like an exotic movie." And novelist Maureen Connell finds "the despair, danger, and erotic life of the Seraglio stunningly portrayed." Do you agree or disagree with these assessments? Why?
  15. How much did you know about the harem before reading this book? As she researched this novel, author Dora Levy Mossanen found herself powerfully drawn into the intimate and secret dealings of the sultanas. "I studied the psyche of women whose lives revolved around the one night the Shah might invite them into his bed and about their sexual relationships with eunuchs who were supposed to be their guardians. I found myself lost in these women's tormented worlds of smoke and opium and poisons. I studied different forms of castration and how the process physically and psychologically scarred the eunuchs." Does the author succeed in communicating her own fascination with this world? Does her novel make you want to learn more about life in the harem?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 28 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2008

    A reviewer

    This book was extremely disappointing!! It should be rated XXX! Details sexually graphic!! Really gross! Not interesting or intellectual just disgusting!

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2007

    voracious reader

    i recommend this novel to any one who loves to read historical fiction without all the history lessons envolved in the reading. thats the real reason why i loved this novel. i really hate when a author puts too much nonfiction in fiction and is not allowed to make a really good story. Mossanen was able to create a wonderful world based on true occurrences, but because it wasn't about specific persons, told a story of intrigues, sensualness, adventure, desire and love. great read and i recommend to all avid readers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2002

    Harem

    After reading HAREM, I realized how little we Americans know about the world out there and about lives of men and women in the middle east. HAREM was not only an enjoyable novel I couldn't put down, but I learned about the plight of women, about eunuchs, royalty, and the way of life in Persia. The characters kept me in their grip and I didn't want to leave this world where I could smell every smell, see every color, and experience the feelings of the characters. This novel is perfect for a movie Thank you Ms Mossanen

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2002

    Depth Free

    As a lover of historical fiction, I prepared myself for some excellent reading about ancient Persia, Jewish life and customs, and an excellent storyline. What I got was a Playboy channel "story" set in ancient times with no depth, no real plot, and more sex than I could hope for in a lifetime. The title alone should have been a tip-off. The author has very little writing talent and the publisher should be ashamed to have passed off this piece of junk with such a fine review. Beware! Don't waste your money on this one!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2002

    Sisters In the Struggle

    I just finished Harem and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I work for a major book store and hundreds of books are often just lying around the office, and I picked up this book and read it and I felt as though I was there in the kingdom with Gold Dust, the Shah, Raven and the others. The descriptions and vivid details were just wonderful. As an African American woman with little to no knowledge of ancient Persia, your book provided a look into a world I would have never known. I think the story was a universal story about the power and love of all women. Thanks Ms. Mossanen so much for a great book , and I look forward to reading your next novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2002

    Harem

    Ms Mossanen's novel, HAREM,is a rewarding and informative journey into the labyrinths of an exotic period I knew nothing about. The scope of her meticulous research is clear on every page. I can't wait to read her next novel

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2002

    Too sexual

    I'm no prude, but this book is little more than a trashy romance novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2006

    Captivating!

    Harem was a delight to read! The atmosphere and enviroment of the time and place were so real that I thought about it throughout the day. Beautifully written.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2005

    wonderful

    this book was amazing i got so into it that when i finished it i couldnt stop thinking about the caracters the names were awsome i loved every bit of it i wished it neve ended. i cant wait for her next one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2002

    Harem

    I work for a book store in Florida. I see hundereds of new books every week, but picked up HAREM because I was intrigued by the endorsements and by the beautiful cover. From the first page to the very last, I was amazed that a first time author could have such insight into her subject matter and know her characters so intimately. I had no previous knowledge of ancient Persia, Harems, eunuchs, or the wonderful and intricate world of court. I not only learned about the history of the time but was thoroughly engrossed by Rebekah, Raven, the king and his eunuch. I believe HAREM is destined to be a movie and have no doubt it will be optioned soon. I highly recommend the novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2002

    Disappointing

    I bought this book thinking it would be similar to The Red Tent or Queenmaker, which I thought were very good. I enjoy historical romance but I would not catagorize this book as such. The background of the story appeared to be well researched but the story line itself contained too many supernatural elements to be thought probable. And what's up with those names? I found them distracting and unbelievable. You certainly can't judge this book by it's cover.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2002

    Excellent Historical detail and deeply satisfying

    I enjoy historical novels and have especially enjoyed HAREM. HAREM is the most authentic historical depiction of ancient Persia I have ever read. Clearly the author has done her homework. I also enjoyed the strong female characters and the interesting male protagonists. This was a very satisfying read, both informative and a page turner. Read HAREM! You will love it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2002

    Harem

    I read 'Harem,' and couldn't help but read aloud certain scenes to my girl friend. I was especially taken by the complexity of Rebekah, the protagonist, and the vast research the author had done to understand the psychology of eunuchs and the women who lived in harems.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    An engrossing journey into an unknown land

    luscious writing and a captivating story that seduces and captures the reader...an entire universe awaits.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2002

    Harem

    I received my copy of 'Harem' three days ago and could not part from the gripping characters of this lush novel until the very end. The voice is beautiful and poetic, and the story woven with great expertise.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2002

    Harem

    I began reading the book two nights ago and couldn't put it down until two AM each night. Every page opened another exciting universe of eunuchs, kings, and harem women who were more resourceful than any contemporary politician. I can't wait to get back from work to finish this amazing novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2002

    Harem

    As a businessman, I wondered if I would enjoy a historical love story, but I did--very much so. The story moves smoothly from the life in the Jewish ghetto into the intricacies of the palace and its politics. I learned a lot.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2002

    Extremely Entertaining

    I enjoyed the book "Harem" so much that I am on my second reading! It's greatly entertaining and erotic. I've read a lot of novels in my time, but so far have never read a book twice! I recommend it highly!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2002

    Imaginative tale of sex and revenge

    A work of phenomenal imagination; gripping intense tale of sex and revenge beautifully written. I couldn't put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2002

    Harem

    A must read for every book club. Perfect summer reading. Engrossing. Fascinating. Erotic.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews

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